By: Rabbi Aharon Kahn  | 

From the Archives (December 22, 1993; Volume 59 Issue 7) — Perspective: Yeshiva, Yes…

Editor’s Note: After the ban of “Kol, the literary journal of Yeshiva College, in 1993, Dr. Will Lee wrote a response arguing for freedom of expression within a university environment which was republished in the Issue 85.5 of The Commentator. Rabbi Aharon Kahn, a rosh yeshiva in RIETS, penned a response in which he argued that the yeshiva aspect of Yeshiva University should be emphasized over the university aspect. 

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Ad Mosii Atem Poschim al ShTei haSe’ipim. “How long will you straddle two opinions?” How long will you halt between two value systems? — I Kings (18,21) 

(Dr. Lee began his thoughtful, well-written and caring essay with a quote from the Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton that there cannot be a Catholic university. If it is Catholic it is not a university, if it is a university it is not Catholic. The assumption is that Chesterton would have made the same observation about a Yeshiva University. I agree with the Chestertonian observation. Still, I suppose it is more appropriate, considering my position, to cite Eliyohu HaNovi.) 

Dr. Lee’s essay is a carefully wrought analysis which, with a yeoman’s craft, attempts a “Yeshiva, yes; University, yes” argument. Of course, he is completely wrong. 

Dr. Lee argues that it is possible to have a YU, a Yeshiva University. He argues that this indeed is the whole vision of Torah U’madda. 

I would not like to get fastened on the sticky slogan of Torah U’madda. What, you might counter, would a university be without a slogan? And why not then also a mascot? If we have managed without a mascot all these years, we probably can manage without a slogan, too. Besides, all the good ones, like Urim VeThumim, have already been copyrighted by the Yales of this world. Columbia’s emblem even has the Shem haMeforash on it. (A curious aside: Columbia’s emblem, with its Shem haMeforash, is finely engraved on the floor of Low Library. There the Shem haMeforash is stepped on quite regularly by all the devotees of higher learning, all the apostles of modern and arcane wisdom, who cross Low Library’s threshold. Perhaps a real university has to do just that.)

As slogans go, my tastes incline me more towards those ancient, well-worn expressions which marshall instantly our attention and our allegiance. We would do nicely with slogans such as Na’aseh Venishma, Zochor VeShomor, Emes VeEmunah, or Ahavah VeYir’ah. To me, these slogans seem to be most appropriate to the purposes of our institution, most suitable to reflect its message. “Nishma” would refer to the Torah learning at YU, and “Na’aseh” to the application of that Torah learning to life (or, as our talmidim call it, to life out there). Why not “Ahavah and Yir’ah?” “Yir’ah” — our rebounding in ultimate self-reduction (see Rambam Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah ch.2) from that unbounded “Ahavah” for HaShem, a love which has been nourished by a discovery of HaShem, in Torah (Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos)  and in the world (Rambam, Yad, Yesodei HaTorah). All these ancient phrases would seem to serve us very well here at YU. 

Still, chacun a son gout. And some like the taste of Torah U’madda. But, all that aside, I do not feel that slogans will help us here, for we are seeking to discover and to describe the essence, the neshomo, of Yeshiva University. And slogans will not do that for us. So I do not intend to refer to Torah U’madda again in this essay. 

I wish to address one question and only one question. What is Yeshiva University? More precisely, how does the university of Yeshiva University relate, conceptually, to the yeshiva of Yeshiva University? 

What is Yeshiva University is not the same question as: Why do we need a Yeshiva University, nor is it the same question as: Is Yeshiva University a legitimate enterprise. (Perhaps I should have written: Why is Yeshiva University a legitimate enterprise.) Here I address only the first question. What is YU? 

Let us once and for all put to rest this mantra-like recitation of the words of the Gaon of Vilna: “There is a tenfold lack of Torah comprehension for every measure of ignorance in the secular wisdoms.” Some have denied that the Gaon ever said it. Others resent such an allegation, call it revisionism, and insist that the Gaon did say it. But, even if he said it, what did he intend to convey? 

It is clear to all who have studied seriously even some of the many writings of the Gaon of Vilna that he could never have condoned a great deal of what college professors regard as chochma. Moreover, no one who remains true to the tradition of the Gaon and to his legacy, can deny the Gaon’s insistence on the total immersion in Torah learning as the ideal way of life. Nor could anyone imagine that a budding talmid chochom should spend very major portions of his day preparing himself for the study of Torah, thus leaving himself little time to study Torah itself. Yatziva Be’Ar’a veGiyora BiShmay Shemaya! And if the sciences were included (as the text was a translation into Hebrew of Euclid’s Geometry, which the Gaon had encouraged), literature was certainly not included. Indeed it is inconceivable that the Gaon would have condoned the study of anything that even intimated heretical opinions. 

The fact remains that Rav Chaim of Wolozhin, inspired by the Gaon’s words and stimulated by his brocho did not start a Yeshiva University. He started a Yeshiva. The Yeshiva of Wolozhin was the brainchild and the legacy of the Vilna Gaon’s greatest disciple, and he did not dream the dream of a Yeshiva University of Wolozhin. 

One of the great Roshei Yeshiva of Wolozhin, the Netziv (Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), wrote a responsum (Sho’el uMeshiv, I, 44) in which he describes the caveats of a secular studies program which might be required by the government to be established at a yeshiva. 

I paraphrase as I translate: “If the government requires a secular studies program, make sure that it is supervised by Torah scholars and rabbinic authorities and that the teacher of such secular studies be a G-d fearing Jew.” 

(Parenthetically, in the same responsum, the Netziv argues that no one can become a great Torah scholar unless he immerses himself totally, with absolute dedication and unflagging concentration, in his Torah studies. The Netziv continues, “And all the Torah greats who also were scholars of secular subjects, either studied these secular subjects before they immersed themselves completely in Torah or after they were already accomplished Torah scholars. (Torah and secular subjects studied simultaneously cannot produce the ultimate in Torah knowledge.”) 

The Yeshiva of Wolozhin closed its doors on the second of Shevat, 5652 (1892), rather than institute the Russian government’s plan for the yeshiva. This plan had four major points. 1) that the Rosh Hayeshiva and all the teachers of all subjects should have accreditation (that is, should hold diplomas); 2) that the secular subjects be studied from 9AM to 3PM; 3) that there should be altogether no more than ten hours of instruction each day; and 4) that the yeshiva should be closed at night. I have no doubt that if our YU would be faced with such a regime, Rav Dr. Lamm would also close our doors. 

Let us examine a document from that period. It is signed by all the Torah giants of that era. This document was signed in Adar of 5647, that is nearly five years before the yeshiva was forced to close. The yeshiva in Wolozhin was then in its most brilliant period. Over four hundred outstanding scholars studied Torah day and night. But the winds of secularism and haskalah were blowing fiercely and, in Poliakoff’s attic in St. Petersburg, all these Torah giants gathered to discuss the plan, proffered by the Russian government and supported by Jewish maskilim, to introduce secular studies into the yeshiva. 

Concerning the yeshivos they concluded: 1) Although most students coming to the yeshiva already know how to read and write Russian, still the Rosh Yeshiva is obliged to maintain a teacher in a separate facility if the Yeshiva appropriate for such lessons. The teacher is to have an appropriate diploma and license from the Russian authorities; 2) The teacher of Russian at the yeshiva is forbidden to keep with him any free-thinker’s writings nor can he have with him any “Romanen” (Novels), for these are alien to the Torah, and they are not to be brought upon the holy altar of the yeshiva. Nor is the teacher to engage the students of the yeshiva in any discussions which would introduce them to free-thinking thoughts or to stories of “Romanen.” 

Prominent among this document’s signatories are the Netziv, the Bais HaLevi and the namesake of our yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector. 

The Commentator ought to publish the entire text of this document. It is a sad document and leaves one with a heavy heart. It fights mightily for what should have been patently obvious. And it reflects the views of the gedolei Yisroel whose opinions we revere because they are so steeped in Torah and righteousness, in ahavas Yisroel and ahavas HaShem

It is important for us moderns to remember also that in their day the argument of the maskilim included the need to respond to “modernity.” And such were the arguments of the Hellenistic Jews a very long time ago. 

Our Yeshiva was called, at its birth more than a hundred years ago, Yeshiva Etz Chayyim. In honor of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon who was truly loved by all, the yeshiva was named Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon. Whatever its name, our yeshiva was to be a continuation of the legacy of the Wolozhin Yeshiva Etz Chayyim. Our strength lies in our ability to preserve that legacy. We Jews were never given the charge of keeping the torch of the university ideal. We were charged with the keeping of the Torah. 

As far as the accreditation argument goes, I for one fo not understand it at all. It is simply eminently illogical. If the standards of the evaluators are contrary to Torah standards, we cannot and dare not abide by them. If these experts get their values elsewhere and their vision of the good and the great is not rooted in Hashkafas HaTorah, then they cannot be, dare not be the arbiters of our values and our vision. If their sense of right and wrong, or of true and false, is not predicated on the halachah and contradicts halachah, how can we do right by them and still remain true to our Torah? 

As to the question of state funds, ossur is ossur. Does anyone claim that for the sake of monies from anywhere ossur become muttar

To the Protestant Henry of Navarre is attributed that cynical remark that Paris is worth saying mass for. Are we then to say: Paris vaut bien une messe? We do not justify the dereliction of religious principles for the sake of material gain or of social and cultural acceptance. 

I believe that we had no right to box ourselves into the government funds corner, that we should never have created structures which so depend on government funds that we have to compromise our attitudes and postures. If gay groups are abhorrent to us as Torah Jews, we have to be willing to sacrifice everything to reject them and refuse them a forum in our midst. At the very least, the question requires serious halachic analysis by the greatest poskim of our time. Certainly we cannot say the contract we have with the government demands that we allow it even minimally, that we tolerate it even minimally. 

The argument has been proffered that the halacha acknowledges the special needs of the after-the-fact bedi’eved situation and that halacha allows greater leniency after the fact than it might allow before the fact. And isn’t a classic example of this principle the instance of great loss of monies, what is called “hefsed merubah?” Of course it is, and of course there are differences in the halacha between lechatchila and bedi’eved. But not every bedi’eved changes the halacha

Nearly every Jew who emigrated here at the turn of the century and was compelled to support his family by taking a job which required Shabbos work, felt the terrible pressure of the bedi’eved. And succumbed. He did not ask poskim, he did not feel compelled to live on bread and water. He did not deal with the unacceptable, and historically and juridically untenable, be’dieved which he had created. Sometimes mesiras nefesh of the highest order is needed to reject an untenable bedi’eved. Most were not zocheh to achieve that level. And it is hard to judge them. Truly hard. But they were wrong. 

Because human nature abhors guilt, soon the Jewish immigrant’s bedi’eved was transformed, by a series of justifications and exculpations, into a plausible lechatchila. America was different. The old rigor was suddenly no longer relevant, no longer real. Why suffer? 

Not every bedi’eved is acceptable. Furthermore, the problem with accepting a gay society as part of YU, on the YU campus, goes a lot deeper. The fundamental question is: can a yeshiva ever be a bedi’eved circumstance? 

This question pops out of a pandora’s box of bilious perplexities. 

The fundamental issue is this: Should our YU teach a student about life after YU, about the “world out there,” by gently introducing him into that world? Is the environment provided him to be a half-way house or is it to be a tower of ivory and iron? Should the student/talmid be exposed to the world with its weaknesses and its enticements, its compromises and its bedi’eveds, its here-and-now reality? Or should the environment be pure and holy, where the sacred is protected, the profane rejected? (Not the secular, the profane.) 

What is the model, the simile? “Sugah bashoshanim - hedged in by roses. Is it the horticulturist’s English garden or the rougher survival-of-the-fittest (or the fastest, or the feistiest) wildflower field?

Dr. Lee writes: “A Jew should learn the ideals of the Western World uncensored in order to be able to say that he rejects those values but he understands them.”  This then is the dialectic: learn, understand, reject. The product is expected to come out stronger, more fit to function in the Modern World, to resist its temptations, which he already knows first-hand. He has tasted of the poisoned fruit and he has come out whole. True the angel of Eisav may have smitten him here and there, but the sun shines and lo, he, Yaakov, is whole and well. So this bedi’eved turns out to be actually a lechatchila. After the fashion of all vaccines, a little introduction to the disease, in a controlled way, and the antibodies build up, immunities are formed and the disease no longer reigns. 

One might wish to carry this argument even further. Perhaps, the argument would reason, the millions we, klal Yisroel, have lost to this western world, might not have been lost if we had developed these vaccines much earlier. Halvay, the argument would continue, there would have been a YU available to all those kids who got lost. Halvay, the vaccination process had been available to all those who had nothing in Yiddishkeit to nourish them save for the hard, extreme, and unyielding lechatchilas of the right-wing intransigent model of Yiddishkeit

I do not believe in the theory of Yeshiva as vaccination. Because the Yeshiva historically has been a place of intense Torah learning it has also been a place of profound holiness, of kedusha. Torah demands the academy of yiras Shomayim, of the fear of heaven. Raishis Chochmah yiras Hashem. For Torah there is no other way. And yiras Shomayim is not fostered by “Romanen.” 

Perhaps Dr. Lee would argue that an introduction to “Romanen” might benefit the student of YU by reducing his Yetzer Hora. He writes: “This desensitization (to foul language and sexual literary content) has some positive consequences. Language which might have triggered the ‘evil inclination’ in a student of the forties, and which that same student might have found viscerally offensive, might carry no sexual charge for most students today.” 

There’s the rub. It is precisely that sensitivity which is the hallmark of the ben-Torah, of every pious Jew. Lashon Kodesh has no explicit references in its vocabulary. That makes it kodesh. Desensitizing our students is the beginning of the end, not just the end of the beginning. 

Something as delicate as sensitivity would seem to be a hashkafic matter, not a halachic one. It is not so. But were it to be so, it would be a terrible mistake to think that the enterprise of a yeshiva can restrict itself to the halachic realm. Yeshivas foster hashkofo, they offer their talmidim a vision of life. 

It would also be a serious error to imagine that hashkofo is more arbitrary than halacha, more relative. Often the Rav would say in the name of his grandfather that aggadah was also halacha, the halacha of how a Jew should think. 

How a Jew should think! How reactionary can you get, how unlike a true university?! This then is the crux of the matter. 

Dr. Lee introduces a significant argument. The university tradition. He writes: “Although not nearly as ancient as the Jewish tradition, the university draws on its own ancient roots and adheres to ideals which it has evolved over centuries. Foremost among those ideals in the modern American university are the development of individuals who think for themselves, contribute in some way to society, and participate in the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and truth, including truths about humanity.” An impressive paragraph, and, as the strains of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture waft over my sensibilities, I can almost declare: Gaudeamus igitur, let us therefore rejoice. 

Some of our recent college graduation exercises leave me thinking that a good part of the university tradition can be summed up in three words: In vino veritas. Perhaps I am too harsh. But there is too much of the herd instinct in what goes for individualism. Iconoclasts are exercises done all too often by many “individuals” acting always together and in exactly the same way. 

I am not so sure about universities breeding students who are fiercely individual and who learn how to think for themselves. Frankly, I think an argument could be made that the yeshiva historically did a better job in producing such individualists. And clearly, every yeshiva prides itself on the development of the clearest, most incisive thinking in the pursuit of the truth. 

Dr. Lee writes that it is in the university tradition to produce students who will contribute, in some way, to society. True, I have been asked in my formative, prefatory years by well-meaning family members and avuncular patrons, as to the precise nature of what I do. I would invariably answer that I studied Torah and would invariably be asked again, “Yes, but what do you do?” Nonetheless, I stubbornly persisted in my presumption that I was in fact doing something, for myself, for society, for my people and for the world. I also felt I was part of that great ecological effort in which yeshivas have always been engaged, an effort to preserve an endangered species: the Jews. 

But the point, essential and telling, which Dr. Lee makes, lies at the end of the paragraph. He speaks, of course, of academic freedom, of “the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and truth, including truths about humanity.” The “unfettered” pursuit of truth. “From a secular faculty member’s point of view, freedom of thought, inquiry, study, speech and writing weigh in heavily; they help take the measure of a true university.” 

But YU is not a siamese twin with two heads and one heart. YU was a yeshiva first and, after the advent of the college, continues to be a yeshiva foremost. Rav Dr. Lamm insists that the yeshiva is the heart of YU. Then he is the keeper of our heartbeat. YU is a yeshiva at which there is a college. 

YU has many branches, like a tree. And, like a tree, it has a history, it has roots. In the Chapters of the Fathers (3,22) it is written: “He (Rabbi El’azar ben Azariah) used to say: He whose wisdom exceeds his deeds is like a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and overturns it upon its top. Of such a man it is said: ‘He shall be like a lonely man in the wasteland and shall not see when good comes…’ But he whose deeds exceed his wisdom is like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many. Even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they cannot move it from its place…” 

We at YU want to remain connected to the stream of running waters, we want our tree to bear the very best fruit. We want a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many and deep. We want to guarantee that no matter how hard the winds blow, the tree will remain true, steadfast in its purpose and confident in its vision. 

YU may have many populations, but it has only one Torah. It may have many sub-communities, but it only has one halacha. YU may seek to make the halacha relevant to all, but not at the expense of redefining and thereby narrowing the parameters of halachic relevance. And Torah provides YU with its weltanschauung, not Proust or Kant or Bach or Mahler or Berenson or Shelley. And not even Albert Einstein or Shimon Peres can lend us their world-view. Subjects they provide, world-views they cannot. 

I am reminded of the intense disappointment of two writers who had undertaken a study of the Rav’s philosophical essays in search of a revolutionary thought. They concluded, instead, that the Rav was merely old wine in new bottles. The Rav was a decanting of the very same Torah-wine which he inherited from his Brisk forefathers. What a frustration for those who were looking for something really new, really insurgent. They had wasted their time. 

Had they come to me first, I could have saved them both time and frustration by telling them that it could not have been otherwise. The Rav’s Torah was authentic, so it had to be the same Torah. In all the languages which the Rav had mastered, it was the same Torah. In the prisms of all the philosophies which the Rav had studied, the Torah still refracted Abaye and Rava, Rav Saadya and the Rambam, the Ketzos haChoshen and the Nesivos, the Gaon of Vilna and Reb Chayim of Brisk. The Rav had a masorah of Torah erudition, of lomdus. It was the same masorah which he had inherited from his father and his grandfather. Actually, the Rav was much less “revolutionary” than his grandfather, Reb Chayim Brisker. How many times did I hear, in the almost twenty years in which I heard the Rav’s shiurim, that Reb Chayim was the trailblazer who had “paved a path through the jungle.” 

The Rav clarified and demonstrated, elucidated and expounded, dissected and reconstituted, asked and answered, queried and protected the very same Torah which he received from his father and grandfathers. 

He may have used in his shiurim phrases that no other Rosh Yeshiva used: willy nilly (the Anglican cousin of the Latin wolens nolens), mutatis mutandis, reductio ad absurdum, imitatio Dei. But in the end it was all gavra and cheftza, ahava and yir’ah, Rambam and Ra’aved. 

No wonder those two writers in search of a brave new Torah were so disappointed in what they found in the Rav’s pouch, no wonder they were so disillusioned with the Rav. 

It is critical to distinguish here between the university complex and Yeshiva College. The university complex is under Jewish auspices. There may be advantages to the Jewish community in having such a university complex, there may be opportunities for the students of Yeshiva College. And, of course, there is the flip side, the problems and the headaches and the heartaches, often of unendurable proportions. But there is no connection whatsoever between the yeshiva and its students and the medical school at Einstein in the Bronx. The Cardozo law school downtown is under YU auspices and is part of the university, but it is remote and unconnected. The Wurzweiler School of Social Work is on the very same campus as the Yeshiva College, to our great distress, but it too is not part of the Yeshiva College identity. It is under YU auspices and is part of the university, but it is not integrated with Yeshiva College nor integral for it. 

Yeshiva College is a yeshiva and bears the standard of all yeshivos since Wolozhin. As a yeshiva it carries the torch of Torah and of Yiras Shomayim, as a yeshiva it is the bastion of Jewish identity and of ahavas yisroel, as a yeshiva it stands for intensity of commitment and for the fine-tuning of ethical commitment and moral behavior; it is a haven in which Torah values and Torah ideals are given reign and flourish. This is historically the Jewish Torah academy — the yeshiva. 

Let us declare what the yeshiva is not. It is not the street, the world, it is not America, it is not a place for women or for free-thinkers. It never was. It can never be. Nor can Yeshiva College be a “supermarket” of possibilities or a shopping mall super-store of ideas and alternatives. Not if YU still wishes to lay claim to the yeshiva tradition. 

Insofar as the beauty of Yefes (Greece) in the tents of Shem (Yisroel), it is clear that there was never any thought given to the erection of a tent of Yefes in the midst of the encampment of the tents of Shem. It is the Torah that may be translated into Greek, so long as it remains the Torah. It is the beauty of Yefes that is accepted, not her subject matter. 

YU provides a college education. But it is a yeshiva which provides a college education. Awake or asleep, summer or winter, today or tomorrow, it can never not be a yeshiva. 

We look to the guidance and the leadership of our Rosh Yeshiva to guarantee always, as he has once again done recently with the Kol affair, that the kol of YU remains Kol Yaakov and does not become, choliloh, the Kol Eisav. 

I was bracing myself against a very harsh wind, a heady harbinger of winter weather, the kind of wind that seems to notice you and that will not let you go. It is a Washington Heights kind of wind, pushing at me with its mocking howl just as I pass Belfer Hall. I look up at the banners with YU’s logo, dancing a wild dance to a windswept tune. And I notice that the banners are full of tears, full of rips which allow the wind to pass through. It makes me wonder. 

There are two ways you can secure a canvas in the face of a powerful gale wind. You can tie down that canvas so securely, so well, that no wind can move it. Or you can rip holes in the canvas so that the wind can pass through. But if you do that the canvas is torn. Since a torn canvas is not a pleasing thing, the tears are carefully prepared in such a manner as to be aesthetically appropriate, even pleasing. The holes seem to fit, to belong. 

But there will always be that innocent, who will look up at the banners unfurled and cry out: Look, mother, the banners are full of holes! 

We want our banners whole, not full of holes. We want our Yeshiva to be a yeshiva, to be Torah’s home and not its motel. We want the Torah to address the modern world, but we want Yeshiva University’s address to be the Torah. And we pray that the wonderful and caring Dr. Lee understands. 

Rav Aharon Kahn is a Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS and the Rosh Kollel of the Gruss Kollel Elyon. 

Photo Caption: The Commentator Archives 
Photo Credit: The Commentator